The Decade of Atheism?

Nathan Jacobson from

“Radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt concluded 2009 by broadcasting a debate about God between polemicists Michael Shermer and Gregory Koukl, thereby bidding adieu to what he called “The Decade of the New Atheists”. It was indeed a remarkable cultural phenomenon how four atheologians in particular rose to prominence by selling scads of books: Sam Harris with The End of Faith, Christopher Hitchens with god is not Great, Daniel Dennet with Breaking the Spell, and, of course, Richard Dawkins with The God Delusion. But just as noteworthy, perhaps, is the cavalcade of able critics who rose to these challenges to Christian theism. As with the cottage industry of criticism that accompanied Dan Brown’s and then Ron Howard’s The Davinci Code, these broadsides served as provocation for countless apologists. Of course, none of these apologists were remotely as successful as their atheistic rivals in terms of sales. One wonders whether they will slip into oblivion just as Hume survives in philosophy readers, while most of his contemporaneous critics do not. Whatever happens, the swift and mostly scholarly response to this one decade’s worth of the now perennial barrage on Christian theism leaves it an open question whether, in the final analysis, it was the atheists or their counterparts who owned the aughts.”

It’s an intriguing question. Nathan has also posted a list of published books and articles that have responded to the New Atheists. It’s worth checking out and judging the debate for yourself.

Counting the fallout of New Atheism: Is there an atheist schism?

As early as Epicurus, there have been attempts to debunk the supernatural, but it was not until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with Hume, Feuerbach, Russell, Sartre and others, that more intellectually sophisticated arguments for atheism entered the marketplace of ideas. Since the early twenty-first century, however, a new pattern of atheism has emerged. Departing from their skeptical forebears, the New Atheists espouse a dogma that differs in both tone and content. They denounce not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is said to be not only wrong, but evil. The shift in accent and stunning ignorance of the heritage of the debate that they are joining has not only concerned theists, but many atheists as well. Over at The Guardian, an interesting discussion is unfolding among skeptics in the wake of this. Two philosophers, Michael Ruse and Ophelia Benson, address the fallout from the New Atheist movement and consider whether there is a split occurring within the ranks of those who profess atheism.

Michael Ruse, the atheist philosopher of biology at Florida State University, defends the revolt against Richard Dawkins and the New Atheist movement in his article “Dawkins et al bring us into disrepute”.  He writes:

There are several reasons why we atheists are squabbling – I will speak only for myself but I doubt I am atypical. First, non-believer though I may be, I do not think (as do the new atheists) that all religion is necessarily evil and corrupting. . .

Second, unlike the new atheists, I take scholarship seriously. I have written that The God Delusion made me ashamed to be an atheist and I meant it. Trying to understand how God could need no cause, Christians claim that God exists necessarily. I have taken the effort to try to understand what that means. Dawkins and company are ignorant of such claims and positively contemptuous of those who even try to understand them, let alone believe them. Thus, like a first-year undergraduate, he can happily go around asking loudly, “What caused God?” as though he had made some momentous philosophical discovery. Dawkins was indignant when, on the grounds that inanimate objects cannot have emotions, philosophers like Mary Midgley criticised his metaphorical notion of a selfish gene. Sauce for the biological goose is sauce for the atheist gander. There are a lot of very bright and well informed Christian theologians. We atheists should demand no less.

Third, how dare we be so condescending? I don’t have faith. I really don’t. Rowan Williams does as do many of my fellow philosophers like Alvin Plantinga (a Protestant) and Ernan McMullin (a Catholic). I think they are wrong; they think I am wrong. But they are not stupid or bad or whatever. If I needed advice about everyday matters, I would turn without hesitation to these men. We are caught in opposing Kuhnian paradigms. I can explain their faith claims in terms of psychology; they can explain my lack of faith claims also probably partly through psychology and probably theology also. (Plantinga, a Calvinist, would refer to original sin.) I just keep hearing Cromwell to the Scots. “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” I don’t think I am wrong, but the worth and integrity of so many believers makes me modest in my unbelief. . .

Today, nearly a decade after 9/11, terrified as so many still are by the terrorist threat, the atheistic fundamentalists are finding equally fertile soil for their equally frenetic messages. It’s all the fault of the believers, Muslims mainly of course, but Christians also. But don’t worry. In the God Delusion, we have a message as simplistic as in The Genesis Flood. This too will solve all of your problems. Peace and prosperity await you in this world, if not the next.

Forgive me if I don’t sign on.

Ophelia Benson, atheist and deputy editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine, responds to Ruse in her article “Atheism itself isn’t a movement”. She argues that the disagreement isn’t within atheism but among atheists who hold additional political views (namely, whether religion is dangerous):

Many atheists want to be able to be atheists without being dragooned into some boring noisy unsubtle bad-tempered “movement”. Many other atheists want to be able to be overt explicit unbashful atheists without constantly being told to be more euphemistic or evasive or respectful or just plain silent by other atheists, who surely ought to know better…

The problem, of course, is that what each group wants is incompatible with what the other group wants. In a perfect world, plain atheists could just ignore movement atheists, and movement atheists could mutter away without disturbing their quieter friends. But in the real world, many plain atheists feel that movement atheists bring the whole notion of atheism into disrepute. We make it more difficult for plain atheists to be just that, because the world at large now thinks of atheists in general as movement atheists.

I see the difficulty, and like the walrus, I deeply sympathise, but I also think that plain atheists should to some extent put up with it. We don’t actually want to dragoon them into “the movement” but we would like to be able to talk freely without even other atheists telling us to pipe down.

To put it another way, we’re not telling them to be noisier, but we don’t much like it when they tell us to be quieter. Yes, granted, we’ve made it somewhat harder to be a plain atheist (though they could always just closet themselves completely, by pretending to be theists) – we seem to be jumping up and down on the parapet yelling “over here, we’re over here!” while everyone else is trying to avoid enemy fire. But that’s life. The pope is always making life difficult for liberal Catholics, too; so it goes.

Where one locates oneself on this map depends partly on whether one thinks religion is mostly benign, or mostly harmful, or a difficult-to-unravel mix of the two. It’s not a neat mapping though – I’m a committed “movement” atheist in the sense that I really do think taboos on open discussion of religion should go away, but I also think religion is a difficult-to-unravel mix of the benign and the harmful. But then I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that all “new” or movement atheists match that description too.

While the concession in Benson’s final paragraph is well-taken, it’s difficult to agree with her general characterization of the debate. I don’t think Ruse or serious advocates of theism are trying to discourage the open discussion of religion or insulate it off from public scrutiny. Christianity, particularly, has nothing to fear here. It has flourished with the robust examination of its ideas for centuries, by great minds such as Augustine, Aquinas, Abelard, Duns Scotus, Descartes, Leibniz, etc. What Ruse and others are objecting to is the mix of belligerence and intellectual complacency that has marked the New Atheist stance.  With pretensions that outstrip their ability to pontificate on the topics they raise, the volume of their shouting has been inversely proportionate to the credibility of their arguments. Religion shouldn’t get an easy ride – faith is no excuse for intellectual shoddiness – but the cliche-mongering and arrogant tone that Dawkins and the New Atheists all too frequently marshal makes it difficult to believe that their goal is truly to engage the theistic side at all.